The marshmallow test is an experimental design that measures a child’s ability to delay gratification. The child is given the option of immediately receiving a single marshmallow or waiting some time and receiving two marshmallows. The time a child was able to wait for measures their ability to delay gratification.
In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who could wait to receive the bigger reward had better life outcomes, measured by education, wealth, and other life measures.
The Original Marshmallow Experiment
In a 1970 paper, Walter Michel, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, and his assistant studied delayed gratification in children. They ran an experiment on 32 preschoolers; the kids were unaware of each other.
The researchers placed a single marshmallow in front of the children and told them they would receive an additional one if they didn’t eat it until the researchers returned to the room.
The study at that time demonstrated that children could wait longer if the extra reward was visible for them rather than just mentioning it.
10 years later, the original researchers contacted the children and found an unexpected correlation between being able to delay their gratification as preschoolers and their later achievements and statistically higher SAT scores.
The topic has attracted a lot of attention, so it was the subject of many subsequent studies. One study even correlated the BMI (body mass index) and the delayed gratification; people who could resist eating the marshmallow at an early age tend to have lower BMI.
Researchers tried to connect the children’s ability to delay eating the marshmallow to their family’s living standards in recent studies. Suggesting that the marshmallow test is not an indication for the child’s future success, youngsters whose parents are more educated and better-off seem to have an easier time delaying satisfaction.
Some studies also found that modern-day children just didn’t care about receiving the additional marshmallow. Instead, they knew their parents would buy their favorite treat after no matter what happened during the test.
So What is Delayed Gratification?
“Delayed gratification is the ability to postpone an immediate reward for the sake of more distant long-term gains. Generally, delayed gratification is assessed in tasks requiring individuals to forgo a smaller but immediate reward for the sake of receiving a larger reward in the future.” As it was defined in the original study from 1970.
Probably the most significant challenge in life is to be able to delay gratifications if the outcome justifies it.
As we learn during life and experience the outcomes of our actions, the ability to delay gratification tends to increase over life.
Is It Just Willpower?
Willpower plays a significant part in delayed gratification; however, it’s not the only one.
When we make a decision about anything, we try to calculate the outcomes of each option.
In certain scenarios, we can achieve more in the future if we don’t just wait. Maybe we realize that it’s not worth waiting for the bigger “prize,” but we want a different prize.